Commission: A Song (and a Lesson)

“Take off your clothes”

This is a commission I made a couple of weeks ago. It was requested by my friend Miriam Hamblett who is, like Paul Kimball, a big Doctor Who Fan. She asked to be portrayed as River Song, the Doctor’s wife, and specifically the way she appeared in the episode Let’s Kill Hitler which premiered during the 6th season.

Nothing gets the audience’s attention as storming in with two machine guns…
Miriam’s photo

As I have explained on a previous occasion, I’m not much of a Doctor Who fan. I didn’t know anything about River Song. I Googled a ton of reference images and asked Miriam to choose which of the many looks of the former spouse of the Doctor she preferred. She also requested a few other details, like making her hair black but leaving two white streaks on each side, and she also wanted to have heart-shaped sunglasses on. I took note and I proceeded to do as I’ve always done with my commissions: work with it and not showing it to my client until I’m fully done.

Initial pencil sketch

As you may see on the image above, I first worked with the idea of replicating River’s super-curly hair, but leaving the two ‘patches’ of white hair on each side like Miriam wanted. I put many hours to complete the piece and when I was done I proceeded to proudly send the end result (which I will NOT show here for reasons explained below) to Miriam, thinking I had done a very good job in fulfilling the fantasy of portraying her as this badass, empowered female fantasy character.

…But Miriam HATED IT.

I was completely distraught. Why had I failed so miserably?? She proceeded to explain to me that instead of capturing River’s luscious curly hair I had come up with an unflattering tight afro instead –a fair observation, since curly hair is EXTREMELY difficult to draw– and my patches of white hair weren’t what she had in mind, either. She also objected to the expression I had given her –here what I notice is that ALWAYS there’s something ‘lost in translation’ the moment you clean up a rough pencil sketch, because even though I still like the expression of the sketch, I admit that in the final illustration the “make my day” subtle smile Miriam wanted failed to register– she objected to the red polish nails I had chosen, and finally she wasn’t too crazy at all about the dark and ominous background I had come up with.

So, I had no choice but to gather the bruised pieces of my ego scattered from the floor, and proceed to correct the piece as best I could without starting all from scratch –pro tip to beginner digital artists: ALWAYS make second copies whenever you make a big change you’re uncertain of, and try to keep EVERYTHING on a separate layer (ink lines, base colors and shading) as much as you can, because that way making a major change will only take minutes or hours instead of days.

I made the changes, showed it to Miriam while holding my breath, and exhaled in relief once she approved the corrections.

I don’t care how long you’ve been working as an artist or designer, EVERY time you start a new project you learn something new. What I learned with the River Song commission is that I had been a victim of my past successes: Since none of my previous patrons had flat out rejected my work, and only a few had requested minor modifications at best, I had grown too overconfident of myself. Miriam’s criticism was a needed cold bath of humility.

Here I’m reminded on the story of British painter Graham Sutherland on how he was commissioned to make a painting of Sir Winston Churchill, which was meant to be presented to celebrate the great man’s 80th birthday. Churchill’s utter disgust on how Sutherland chose to portray him is now a famous historical anecdote. After the day of its unveiling, the infamous painting was never seen again…

Why did Sutherland fail so monumentally as a portrait painter? Perhaps because he was so overconfident of his previous successes –he started his career as a landscape painter and just after a few portraits he gained enough reputation to land the Churchill commission– he forgot that, aside from his artistic goal to make his mark in capturing something unique and ineffable which had never been shown before on previous renderings of the most famous Englishman of his era –a man who had managed to stop the march of Hitler’s hordes on English soil, yet couldn’t stop the march of Time on his own feeble body– his first and foremost job was to please the model.

I too feel that I made fell into a similar mistake when working on Miriam’s commission, which is why now, despite my arrogant reticence to show an unfinished work, I intend to show one or two advances of the commissions to my patrons so I don’t fall into the trap of unveiling a ‘masterpiece’ which will not get the pleasing reaction I am always aiming for.

And as always, remember that commissions are always welcome!


  1. Ah geez RPJ, I am remiss in not posting about this before I abandoned social media. I apologize.
    Yes I do like her now and I am getting to know her (and myself) more every time I look at her. I have shared with some friends who have delared it durn good and gave two thumbs up. I’ve titled her ‘Mimi, No efffs given.’. Exept I use the whole epression. 😉 I am saving up for the next one. Now that I know more about your process I promise to be more specific, to have a selfie with my eyes open and a fictional character in mind.
    Thank you so much. Sorry I was so blunt in expressing myself. Lessons learned for the both of us.


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